Wed, Oct 09, 2013 - Page 9 News List

China’s trash cleanup jolts the West

Once trash imports had little oversight, but now Beijing is demanding cleaner trash to reduce the environmental cost of recycling the world’s garbage

By Joe McDonald  /  AP, BEIJING

In 2011, recycled scrap supplied about 21 percent of the nearly 90.7 million tonnes of paper used by Chinese industry, according to the state-run newspaper China Daily. It said that resulted in a savings of 16.9 million tonnes of wood.

In Europe, electronics recyclers recover about 1.9 million tonnes of plastic and metal annually and send about 15 to 20 percent of that to China, according to European Electronics Recyclers Association executive secretary Norbert Zonnefeld. Its 40 member companies include electronics manufacturers and copper smelters.

European recyclers welcome China’s tighter enforcement because it will help them comply with EU rules on tracking waste and ensuring it is properly handled, Zonnefeld said. Still, he said, some traders have run into trouble.

“I have heard material has been sent back,” Zonnefeld said. “Of course, they should have known. They were just gambling.”

The US relies even more heavily on China to recycle its waste.

Americans threw away 29 million tonnes of plastic in the form of packaging, appliances, plates and cups last year, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. About 997,900 tonnes were collected for recycling.

About half of plastic soft drink and water bottles collected in the US for recycling are sent to China, according to Kim Holmes, director of recycling for the Society of the Plastics Industry in Washington. She said nearly all plastic from US electronics waste is exported to Asia.

“The export market is a major component of the broader US recycling industry,” Holmes said in an e-mail.

China allows waste shipments to contain no more than 1 percent unrelated material. However, customs officials say some were found to be up to 40 percent unrecyclable trash.

“Some unscrupulous traders, in order to maximize profit, smuggle medical and other waste inside shipments, a direct threat to everyone’s health,” a Shanghai Customs Bureau statement said in April.

Despite a ban on imports of used tires, inspectors intercepted a 104-tonne shipment of them in March, the bureau said. They were labeled “recycled rubber bands.”

ARCA Advanced Processing dismantles about 600,000 refrigerators a year and recovers 72.5 tonnes of plastic a week, plus copper, aluminum and other metals, according to Conners. He said those still are sold to traders who ship much of it to China, but the number who can satisfy Beijing’s requirements to separate and clean waste has plunged.

“There used to be guys who would come to our facility probably once a week to buy our plastic to take back to China,” he said. “That has gone down to where I have two vendors who still are able to do business to get it into China.’’

In a reflection of more stringent controls, customs data show Chinese imports of waste plastic fell 11.3 percent in the first half of this year compared with a year earlier to 3.1 million tonnes, after soaring over the past decade.

MBA Polymer’s facility in Guangzhou, in the heart of China’s manufacturing industry, can process 36,300 tonnes of plastic a year, according to Biddle. It transforms waste into pellets to be used as raw material for new products. Buyers include Chinese manufacturers that work for companies such as computer maker Hewlett-Packard Co and consumer electronics giant Philips NV.

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